In the clearest sign yet that Apple is developing augmented reality hardware, the company has purchased Canadian AR start-up Vrvana.
While Apple has remained tight-lipped on its latest efforts in the augmented reality [AR] space, rumours abound of the work going on behind the scenes at the tech giant. Now, it seems we may see an Apple AR headset as early as 2020.
Back in January, we reported on indications that Apple could be preparing to launch its own AR headset in this guide to gaming headsets. Throughout the year we’ve seen numerous developments to reinforce this.
The obvious starting point for Apple was enabling easier creation of AR experiences on iPhone and iPad. An engineering team led by Mike Rockwell launched the team’s first product earlier this year – ARKit.
The tools allowed software developers to create AR applications for iOS and tap into the devices’ hardware to enhance a range of experiences, such as shopping and gaming. The release made Apple the largest AR platform overnight, simply due to the popularity of iPhones.
Since then, Bloomberg has reported that Apple plans to develop technology for a dedicated AR headset by 2019 and ship a product as early as 2020.
Current VR and AR solutions from companies with mobile offerings have utilized those devices in a supporting headset – Samsung’s Gear VR being the obvious example. Apple seems to be choosing a different path though. The latest word out of Cupertino, and the clearest sign yet that Apple is developing AR hardware, is that it has purchased Canadian start-up Vrvana.
Totem: the precursor to an Apple AR headset?
Sources have revealed to TechCrunch that the deal was for around $30 million – loose change in the world of cutting-edge technology, but Vrvana raised just $2 million in funding when it was founded in 2005. Some of the start-up’s employees have reportedly joined Apple in California, though the fate of any products currently under development is unknown.
Despite these humble beginnings, the company’s impressive hardware makes it clear why Apple was eager to acquire the technology behind their Totem headset. The device never saw a public launch but it garnered glowing reviews from press at industry events. Tom’s Hardware awarded it best in show at CES this year.
A 1440p OLED screen and 120 degree field of vision [FOV] ensure a high-quality and immersive experience. The latter is an area in which many other headsets fall short and an essential specification for a good VR or AR experience. Most significantly, the Totem allows for seamless switching between AR and VR modes.
Overcoming AR technology hurdles
As Vrvana CEO Bertrand Nepveu explains in the video below, the company had to overcome the infamous challenge of reducing the latency between the camera’s capturing of the footage and it being relayed to the user.
Forward-facing cameras offer depth of field tracking and 3D positioning (as well as images for AR functionality), while additional infrared cameras track the user’s hands. Combined, these technologies offer a whole host of potential applications across many industries, including manufacturing, healthcare and supply chain.
Users can manipulate virtual objects with their hands, with complete awareness of their real-world surroundings, for mixed reality [MR] experiences. The Totem’s usefulness is expanded by its multi-user capabilities – something it calls ‘shared presence’.
“Combined with patent pending hardware accelerated chroma keying (green screen), the Totem’s unique feature set drastically eliminates the need for external tracking or projection equipment, simplifying setup and giving users freedom to move and accomplish more,” its promotional materials read.
On the software side, supported engines include, Unreal, Unity and OpenVR/SteamVR. Vrvana also created a software development kit [SDK] for custom engines.
Timing is everything
The brains behind the fledgling firm must have impressed the world’s largest technology company (by revenue). Apple have been historically hesitant to enter the AR and VR hardware arena. Until now, an Apple AR headset has seemed to be a distant prospect. In an interview with The Independent, following the release of ARKit, Apple’s Tim Cook highlighted the technological challenges presented by AR.
“The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it’s not there yet. We don’t give a rat’s about being first, we want to be the best, and give people a great experience,” Tim Cook said. “But now anything you would see on the market any time soon would not be something any of us would be satisfied with. Nor do I think the vast majority of people would be satisfied.”
Nonetheless, Cook feels these hurdles can be overcome, its simply a question of how long it will take. With the acquisition of Vrvana, an Apple AR headset that the company can be proud of may be on the horizon. If such a device integrates the innovations of Totem with the product design and platform capabilities of Apple, we may see a headset of huge potential in both consumer and business environments.